Is a glossary needed in a translated-novel? or I would only need to put the translation of the native words under the brackets?

  • This depends so much on the particular novel, and what words and terminology needs to be translated (and which needs to be preserved in its original language).
    – Standback
    Commented Oct 28, 2018 at 7:28

4 Answers 4


If you have so many unfamiliar or questionable terms that you think the reader will need both original and translation, by all means add a glossary. More information never hurts. As long as it's in the back or front matter so the reader can choose to read it or not (that is, it doesn't interrupt the flow of the story), I say add it.

  • Yes, I have been just wondering if it would distract the reader's mind when they have to go to the glossary page whilst they are flowing with the story. example: a white keris (a traditional dragger associated with the culture of Indonesia) Commented Apr 6, 2013 at 13:17
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    @Des, you should explain the term when you introduce it; don't force readers to go to a glossary to get that information. But providing a glossary with additional information, or for reference when the reader sees the term again in 50 pages and says "wait, what was that again?", is another matter. Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 2:06
  • @MonicaCellio, appreciate your comment! Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 22:37

You should also consider a third alternative. Is there a character in your story who will have the same difficulty as the reader with the "foreign" words? Having a piece of dialogue that makes the meaning clear is usually preferable to an (intrusive) in-text gloss.

As an example someone might say When you call that a keris, is that any dagger or a special kind for ritual use?

  • your comment is highly appreciated! I am working on this novel as a translator so my capacity is to translate. When I mention: 'Toward the beach, there was the banjar (a village hall) that performed a Kecak dance every evening.' I am trying to explain that banjar is a village hall where people would gather in certain times to have such of conversation. Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 22:48
  • @Des If you are a translator and the story contains so many words that you feel need special treatment, then talk to the author. Maybe they can suggest an alternative text in the original language which works better once translated. Translations, especially of non-technical works, do not necessarily have to be verbatim, but you definitely should consult with the author before making anything beyond trivial changes in the translated text.
    – user
    Commented Apr 8, 2013 at 8:06
  • @Des From your example, I cannot see why you want to include the word "banjar" at all when village hall will do for readers in English. Thinking about why you want to use the term should give you an insight into how to explain its meaning in a less obtrusive way.
    – Fortiter
    Commented Apr 8, 2013 at 8:15
  • @MichaelKjörling I always communicate with the author. I also involve my knowledge of Western culture while translating this novel, as it is supposed to be published in Europe. Thanks for your comment! Commented Apr 8, 2013 at 12:27
  • @Fortiter In a way this novel brings the characteristic and uniqueness of Indonesian culture and tradition, so I let the native words be there still. I treasure your comment! Commented Apr 8, 2013 at 12:32

I'd say first, can you just translate the words in the text and not give the original? Like in the example you give in the comments on Fortiter's post, why not just write, "Toward the beach, there was the village hall that performed a ceremonial dance every evening" ? (Or more likely, "... where a ceremonial dance was performed every evening". I doubt that the hall danced, it was more likely people in the hall.)

Is there something about a "banjar" that is not captured by the English phrase "village hall", AND that is important to the story? If not, there's nothing gained by including the untranslated word. Note the "AND" in that sentence is important. It is a classic sign of a bad story teller that he includes all sorts of details not relevant to the point. I'm sure we've all heard someone trying to tell about some personal experience that could potentially be very interesting to the hearer, who says something like, "... and when I heard that your brother had been in an accident, I quickly put on my shoes and headed out the door ... and, well, it wasn't really shoes, it was sandals, are sandals considered shoes? They're sort of like shoes, but I think of shoes more as things that have a top to them and ..." And you find yourself wanting to scream, "Get to the point! Was my brother hurt or not? How is he? Where is he now?" So if you say, "well, a banjar isn't just any village hall, it has such-and-such characteristics". This might be very important in the total context of the culture, but does it matter to the story? If not, then the reader doesn't care.

A certain number of untranslated words can add flavor. This is especially true if the word conveys something of the feel of the culture. Again going to your example, I probably would write "Kecak dance". The word "dance" tells us what it is so you don't necessarily need any futher information. The use of the untranslated word gives the impression that it has some special significance, that it is not just any dance, but something with ritual or cultural significance. If it matters, explain further.

And the easy, cheap answer: I've read translated stories that include footnotes for words that the author considered difficult to translate or valuable to include but whose meaning was not clear in context. Like writing "banjar*" and then at the bottom having a footnote that say "A village hall used for ... with ...".

I'm reminded of an interview I saw once with an American woman who had written a humor book that was being marketed in the UK, and she said that they had added a glossary to explain her Americanisms to a British audience. For example she made a reference to being "stuck on a cloverleaf", so in the glossary they defined a cloverleaf as "an interchange on a motorway in the shape of a four-leaf clover". She read a brief excerpt that was basically one joke that referred the reader to the glossary three times. And she wondered, by the time someone reads the joke, and then looks up all the words in the glossary and figures out what she's talking about, are they going to laugh, or will they just say, "Oh. I wonder why she wanted to do that." My point is that you can lose a lot of the punch of a humorous, emotional, or dramatic statement if the reader has to look up all the words before he understands what you are saying.

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    Thank you! just wondering, is there any real 'village hall' in west? A village hall here is linked with our communal living, where it is used as a hall for people to gather. Not only to enjoy the dance together but also to have sort of daily conversation amongst the members of the society. What do you think now? Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 7:55
  • Speaking just of the U.S.: We have the word "hall" as a place where people gather. I think the term "village hall" would be readily understood. I think the kind of role you are talking about was often performed by churches here: in very small communities especially a local church (or THE local church) would often serve as the community gathering place. Less so today than 200 years ago, but it's still very common. Americans also have many clubs that own or rent halls where they gather socially: the Rotary Club, Lions Club, Moose Lodge, Optimists, etc. They probably peaked about 100 years ago...
    – Jay
    Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 13:57
  • ... People not inclined to gather in a church or civic club tend to gather in bars and night clubs.
    – Jay
    Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 13:58
  • @Jay is right, a translator's footnote is a common way of dealing with this problem. Example: in Anna Karenina there is a Russian word meaning "small window set within the larger window (to allow a small amount of fresh air to get into the room without losing too much heat)". There is no equivalent English word. The translator of my English version dealt with this by using the Russian word (in italics) in the main text, and explaining in a footnote what it meant. In this case though, "village hall" is so close in meaning that unless it's vitally important to the story I would just use that.
    – A E
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 15:59
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    @AE Yes. Like the OP gives the example of "keris", a kind of dagger. If IN THIS STORY there is no particular importance to it being a keris and not any other kind of dagger, I'd just write, "He was stabbed with a dagger" or whatever. If it's important that it's a ceremonial religious item, then I might write, "He was stabbed with a keris, a ceremonial religious dagger." If that's insufficient to make the significance clear, then maybe there's call for a footnote, or for adding a paragraph to the text explaining it.
    – Jay
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 16:14

The novel I am translating is set in Egypt, so there are often Arabic phrases and sentences. The original uses footnotes to translate them. I find that pedantic, so I use glosses to make sure the meaning is clear, as in: "Chukran," he thanked him. Then I have a glossary of Arabic phrases as the end, so a curious reader can find all the Arabic with translations. How does that sound?

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    Welcome to Writing.SE! Are you asking if what you're doing is OK, or are you suggesting the OP follow your example? The second is perfectly fine. The first - not so much: if you have a new question, it should be asked as such, separately. Your last phrase makes it confusing. Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 8:43
  • This does offer a third alternative to OP's suggested options -- and it explains why this alternative can be a good one. I think the issue here is in the lack of detail in the original question; less in this particular answer.
    – Standback
    Commented Oct 28, 2018 at 7:26

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